With the first tip of the 2018 NCAA Tournament imminent, Shane McNichol takes a look at the competition’s toughest bracket.
The Top Contenders
There are more talented teams in this tournament than Michigan State. There are more accomplished teams and more polished teams too. Despite all of that, Sparty might be the best team in the land. Not only that, they might be the best built for a tournament run.
Michigan State doesn’t rely solely on one player or one system. The Spartans seem to have an answer for anything thrown their way. We have not seen them handle anything close to a back-to-back of Duke and Kansas this season. Michigan State coasted through a relatively easy Big Ten schedule and a very pedestrian non-conference slate. The Spartans played the other tournament teams in the Big Ten only once each. They beat Purdue at home, lost to Michigan at home, and lost at Ohio State. In November, they split with Duke and North Carolina.
The roster to win the entire tournament is there. We just haven’t seen it yet.
Since switching to a zone defense, the Blue Devils have been excellent on that end of the floor statistically. Anecdotally, it is a sloppy zone that good teams have been able to attack. In the NCAA Tournament, a team unprepared for a zone might be thrown off and destroyed by it.
Against say, I don’t know, one of the best coaches in the sport with at least four days to prep his team for that zone, it would be less effective. Am I talking about the possibility of Tom Izzo and a Michigan State team that’s seemingly built to conquer a zone defense playing Duke in the Sweet Sixteen?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Seriously, Michigan State’s pod in Detroit this weekend in no joke.
The Jayhawks are a very vulnerable top seed. Kansas is flawed this season and we’ve seen it all year. I profiled what was wrong with the Jayhawks back on January 4 and most of that still holds true. This section stands out:
Kansas ranks dead last in the nation in free throw rate. The Jayhawks attempt just one free throw for every five field goals they hoist. Compare that to Arizona State, who beat Kansas this season, which shoots half as many free throws as field goals. In fact, Kansas also ranks dead last nationally in the percentage of points coming from the charity stripe and just 10.9 percent.
Both of those statistics have upticked a tad and Kansas is no longer ranked last in either, but the Jayhawks are in the bottom 15 of both free throw rate and percentage of points coming from the foul line.
They simply can’t reach the Final Four like that. As good as the shooters on Kansas may be, no team can stay that hot for that long.
The Top Players
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Should Miles Bridges be playing power forward for a team without two really good big men next to him? Yes, he should.
Is he still averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while playing out of position? He sure is.
Lastly, the suggestion that Bridges should be playing a different position implies another player should also be moved, either to a new position or to the bench. Benching Nick Ward or Jaren Jackson would do Tom Izzo and the Spartans no good.
Anyway, Miles Bridges is really good.
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
When Frank Mason III won National Player of the Year last year and then graduated, most people would have smartly assumed there’d be a drop-off at the point guard position in Lawrence. It was almost guaranteed to happen.
And then Devonte’ Graham averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range and won Big XII Player of the Year unanimously and is considered by many to the the favorite for the national awards as well. Somehow, Kansas didn’t miss a beat.
Now Graham has a tall task ahead. He needs to lead a team full of shooters with little size at all through a gauntlet of a region to the Final Four. Given what we’ve seen from Devonte’ Graham, it might not be crazy to expect him to pull that off.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Marvin Bagley is so physically gifted with size, length, speed, skill, and springiness that the only way for him to fail in college basketball would be a lack of effort or misguided decision making. The biggest decision he made was playing for one of the greatest coaches of all-time, surrounded by sky high levels of talent. Based on that choice alone, he checks that box.
As for his motor, it’s been firing all season. Despite being incredibly gifted, Bagley outworks his defender on a nightly basis. He fights for rebounds. He gives second effort. Maybe it ties back into the decision to go to Duke and play for Coach K, but Bagley hasn’t produced big numbers this season by skating by on his talent. He hasn’t just been good in a vacuum as an NBA prospect. He’s dominated college basketball because he gives his all. To any team standing between Duke and a national title, that’s terrifying.